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Elderly activist nun's civic actions exposing nuclear threats at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA

Oak Ridge is a complex of government nuclear facilities. Sister Megan Rice and two other activists infiltrated one of the buildings to expose nuclear military threats, and went jail for it.


On September 19, 1942, Colonel Leslie Groves and the federal government claimed over 24,821 hectares of land along the Clinch River to use as a secret base for manufacturing uranium for nuclear bombs. This base, named Oak Ridge but also informally known as the Secret or Atomic City, was dedicated to war efforts during the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. The land was chosen because its rural location was favorable for keeping the bomb project hidden and it was close to a hydropower dam that could supply a large amount of electricity for the manufacturing. Locals already living in the area were forced to leave with less than 2 weeks notice and given hardly any compensation, while some did not get compensation at all. No one was informed of why they had to move other than that it was for the war effort [10]. Workers brought into Oak Ridge were segregated, with black workers housed closest to the uranium storage facilities in the lowest quality residences [4]. In the decades since its establishment, Oak Ridge no longer actively creates nuclear bombs but is still actively housing and researching uranium. Tons of radiactive elements have contaminated groundwater and sediments over the years, and shallowly buried nuclear wastes are suspected of continuing to leak into the Clinch River and Watts Bar Reservoir, popular areas for fishing and swimming. Contamination rates in Watts Bar are enough to declare it as a dumpsite [9]. Approximately 1,000 tons of mercury used in the nuclear production process have also been discharged into the environment, contaminating soil, groundwater, air, and the East Fork Polar Creek [3]. Consequently, between 1943 and 1985, 27,982 workers at Oak Ridge were reported to have died from various forms of cancer and leukemia [8].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Elderly activist nun's civic actions exposing nuclear threats at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Tennessee
Location of conflict:Oak Ridge
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Military installations
Manufacturing activities
Nuclear waste storage
Specific commodities:Uranium
Nuclear bombs
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Military use of nuclear energy presents very grave socio-environmental risks. The Oak Ridge Y-12's primary missions since the end of the Cold War have been to support defense needs through stockpile stewardship, assist on issues of nuclear non-proliferation, support the Naval Reactors program, and provide expertise to other federal agencies. Y-12 is also responsible for the maintenance and production of all uranium parts for every nuclear weapon in the United States arsenal. Y-12 is responsible for the production and maintenance of the "secondary" aspect of thermonuclear devices, for which it currently employs approximately 4,700 people.

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Project area:24,820
Type of populationRural
Start of the conflict:19/09/1942
End of the conflict:08/05/2015
Company names or state enterprises:United States Federal Government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Society of the Holy Child Jesus
Transform Now Plowshares
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local ejos
Social movements
Religious groups
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Property damage/arson
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Soil contamination, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion
Potential: Genetic contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…)
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Land dispossession
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Militarization and increased police presence
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Strengthening of participation
Application of existing regulations
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:Megan Rice's and her group's goal was to expose the previously unheard of injustices of the military nuclear industry, and their civic direct actions brought attention to the issue nationwide, under the anti-nuclear arms motto "transform now swords into plowshares".
Sources & Materials
Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[5] The Tennessean. Tennessee officials keep radioactive waste details from public (Wadhwani 2019)
[click to view]

[8] Radiation Research. A Mortality Study of Employees of the Nuclear Industry in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (Frome et al. 1997)
[click to view]

[16] National Catholic Reporter. Appellate court reverses Oak Ridge Plowshares sabotage conviction (2015)
[click to view]

Other documents

Y-12 Graffiti Photo: Nuclear Resister
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Dalena Tran, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update15/03/2020
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